Friday, November 15, 2013

Rockledge Rumble 50k - Part 5: The Inspiration to Finish Strong

It was strange running past 22 miles.  After my nice rest and recovery at the aid station, I felt better than I had in miles.  Even though my legs (and let's face it, my entire body) had been feeling worse each mile since the 16th, I felt as if I was back at mile 10.  Shannon must have felt it, too, because while she was out in front pacing, our runs became longer and faster while our walks became much shorter and farther between.

For almost 3 miles, we felt great!  Our chatting turned to silent determination as we pushed forward along the course.  I had brought a handful of pretzels from the aid station, anticipating the need for an energy boost, but I hardly touched them.  My reactions to seeing our progress on my GPS watch switched from resentment at how little time had past to excitement that we had covered another half mile of trail with hardly a thought.

By this point, I was well practiced in an age-old Ultramarathoner's trick of "breaking up the course into manageable chunks."  The last had been the bag drop at mile 22, and the next was our final aid station around 26.5.

Unfortunately, as the aid station came closer, time seemed to move slower.  "Just 2 miles" until the aid station didn't seem as promising as it should have.  We fell back into a slower pace, at one point arguing over the exact distance to our goal.  Around this time I learned of Shannon's apathy (maybe even a little resentment?) toward one of the most well known Ultramarathoners around, both of whose books I've read and enjoyed.  She also told me about one of her favorite running tricks: when you start to get angry about everything during a run (as I like to call this: "entering the Bite-me Zone"), eat something.  It always seems to help, she said.  I ate a pretzel.

We reached the aid station, and for the first time during the race, I stopped running to get a refill and a quick bite.  My 3rd apple fried pie (the first two of which I ate at miles 5 and 12) tasted awful.  We chatted a little too long with the aid station volunteers about running nutrition and snakes, I threw away my last bite of fried pie, and we got on our way for the final leg of the race.

During our next couple of walk breaks, we recognized the fact that I had possibly just become an Ultramarathoner by finishing the 27th mile.  We weren't sure if I had to actually finish the race to earn the title, but we decided it was probably close enough.

But soon after, our chats tapered off.  We held pace as well as we could, although it became harder and harder to want to continue.  By mile 29, we had nothing left to do but grit our teeth and dig deep.  We started our final push as we ran through the center of a Boy Scouts campsite.  They had jokingly offered us hot dogs on our first pass about 2 hours earlier, but disappointingly, there were no hot dogs waiting for us this time around.  We pushed on anyway.

There's this trick I've started using to find inspiration in the later miles.  I have a stack of cards that I keep in a pouch, and the cards are printed with my favorite quotes about running.  I have a few from John Bingham, a couple Steve Prefontaine, and a smattering of others.  Sometimes when I'm getting tired or losing motivation, I'll pick a card to hang onto for a while.

I had started picking cards during walk breaks several miles earlier, but this time I had one specific card in mind.  I needed to see it.  I needed to hold it in my hand.  It's the one card in the stack that would be meaningless to anyone else, and it's the one I needed more than any other.

The quote is from my dad.  It comes from almost 2 years ago when my parents visited for the weekend of my first marathon, which I was running with Team in Training in honor of my dad, who was suffering from prostate cancer.  I referred to my dad as my "Honored Hero," Team in Training's term for the cancer victims we work so hard for.  My dad wouldn't accept the term.  He had a humility that told him others were always more deserving of such respectful titles.

The weather was awful on race day (40 degrees and raining during all 5 hours of the race), and I was worried that my parents wouldn't be able to wait outside to see me finish.  I had suffered through the last 2 hours of running, mostly by feeling dejected over out-pacing myself at my first-ever marathon, and I was ready for the finish line.  I had finally pushed myself back into a run, and a quick one at that, when I made the last turn toward the finish line.

First, I saw the crowd.  They were all cheering for those of us finishing the arduous journey.  Then I saw the finish line, the pinnacle of the event.  Then I heard one voice.  It screamed through the crowd, yelling "you're my hero!!!"  I knew even before I saw his face that the words were meant for me.  My dad stood out in the cold rain, waiting for me, just so he could tell me that I was HIS hero.  At a time when I thought my tank had run dry, I drained every last drop trying to prove him right, even though I knew he had it backwards.

"You're my hero!!!"
-Gary Dawson

That's the card I needed to see, because I never stopped running in honor of my dad.  He has been my inspiration run after run, race after race, and day after day.  The night he died, when everyone else went to rest after a long, sleepless night, I went for a run, because that's what connected me with the spirit of my dad.  And by mile 29 of my Ultramarathon, I had spent many miles with the memory of my dad running next to me, encouraging me, giving me strength.  As I went into the final 2 miles of my Ultramarathon, I needed to hear my dad's voice one more time.

Shannon continued to be my pacer, and as she pushed the pace, I followed step for step.  My friend Brant was waiting for us a mile from the finish, and I made sure to drag him along while he tried to snap a few pictures.  I saw more familiar faces as I pushed through the final stretch.  At the last moment, before the 20-step climb to the finish line, Shannon pulled back.  "This is your first, it's your moment."  I dropped down for a burpee (it's a CG thing), turned, and sprinted up the stairs to the finish.

My medal was waiting, along with a cold bottle of water, and many congratulations.  I don't remember much else, except how hard it was to stand back up.  I did get a couple of great congratulatory gifts from my friends, and a ham and cheese quesadilla from a race volunteer that I barely finished, both hugely appreciated.

You know how sometimes you mentally understand something, but somehow that understanding hasn't reached that place in your heart where you really know it to be true?  That's where I was after the race.  Sitting at a picnic table between friends, still focused on getting water and calories into my body, slowly realizing that I was done.  My 31.1 mile journey was over.  I was an Ultramarathoner.

Now, there's 1 question that seems to be on everyone's mind.  Will I do it again?  I learned one thing during this experience, and it's the one thing that will keep me coming back again and again.  To paraphrase Roger Hart:

What did I learn from running 31 miles, speeding through many miles and some not running at all, the miles run over rocks and roots and those long, dusty trails below the trees looking out onto the lake, my feet softly ticking against the trail?

I learned I was alive, and it felt good. God, it felt so good.

Always moving forward,


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Rockledge Rumble 50k - Part 4: Digging Deep

There's another notable difference between road running and trail running, and it's the one that usually results in bloody knees and palms.  Unlike the nice, smooth surface of asphalt and concrete, trails are filled with all kinds of unkind hazards.

On this course, we navigated our way over roots, stumps, and rocks at every mile, and for long stretches these obstacles were covered with fallen fall foliage, rendering them nearly invisible to the quick-moving runner's eye.  We stepped carefully over and between rocks, sometimes large and jagged, sometimes small and easily rolled underfoot.  We kicked small stumps of young trees that were cleared from the trail.  Worst of all, pencil-thick roots had a tendency to snake across the trail, kicked slightly up from the dirt floor, and wait for runners like a trip wire.

By 4 hours into the course, my foot had found its fair share of obstacles.  For at least the 4th time during the race, another runner told me "wow, good recovery!" after a treacherous stumble.  I was glad to stop short of my face on the ground, but I had to wonder how many "good recoveries" I had left in me.  I knew that one more root could result in my leg covered in blood, or worse, a debilitating injury.

Shannon, my new-found running buddy, and I were at mile 20.  The next milestone was at mile 22, when we would reach our drop bag (which holds any gear, food, or supplies we decide to pack for ourselves) near the finish line.  This would be the end of the first loop and what I expected to be the most mentally difficult of the race.  We would be in sight of the finish line, yet we would have to turn around for a 9-mile loop before reaching our goal.

By mile 20, my legs were screaming.  Hers probably were too, but she was too nice to say anything negative out loud.  We were walking as much as running, and to make things more difficult, the mountain bikers had started taking on the trail.  We expected a few, but every time one pulled around the corner, we had to stop our forward progress, hop to the side of the trail, then summon the courage to regain our momentum.

It was slow going, but we finally reached the familiar part of the trail that told us we were close.  We navigated the last stretch of rough trail and turned onto the road.  Just as we saw the aid station, I was met with a surprise.

My friend and workout buddy, Brant, had come to volunteer.  I had talked to him before the start of the race, but what I didn't know was that he brought 2 more workout buddies along.  Brant jogged out to meet me, asked me if he could go find my drop bag for me, and I was showered with encouragement from my friends.

The aid station personnel refilled water bottles while I stretched, and Brant helpfully dug through my drop bag to find what I asked for.  I noticed a scrape on my knee, and I couldn't remember for the life of me what had caused it.  I mentioned this to someone, but if my voice sounded the way I felt, I wasn't making much sense.

Finally, with food and drink in hand, Shannon and I turned back to the course.  We walked for a while as we ate and rehydrated, and by the time we traded road for trail we broke back into a jog.

Surprisingly, this was my favorite part of the race.  I had worried, after studying this year's revisions to the course map, that the prospect of turning away from the finish line would be too much.  I worried that the task of 9 more miles would be more daunting than ever with the finish in sight.  But thanks to a few friends, this stop was exactly what it was meant to be.  It was a place to recharge, refuel, and rest before taking on the most difficult miles of the race.

When we were back on the trail, I asked my ultra-experienced running buddy a hard question.  "Be honest with me," I asked.  "Does it get harder?"  She knew what I meant.  My entire body was beginning to rebel.  I had been running for 5 and a half hours by this point, longer than I've ever stayed on my feet before.  My legs were in pain, my body vehemently urged me to stop, and I was just flat ready to be done.

I waited for the answer while she thought.  I hoped she wasn't trying to find a nice way to deliver bad news.  She finally answered "it doesn't get worse."

Great, I thought.  I get to deal with this for 9 more miles.

More to come,


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rockledge Rumble 50k - Part 3: Just Keep Running

When preparing for my 50k, I drove to Murrell Park and ran some miles on the race course.  There was 1 part of the course in particular that I hadn't run before, and I had heard this was the hardest part of the trail.  I made a trip out there a week before and tried it out, and it was even tougher than I expected.  I knew these miles would slow me down, and by 9:00 I was into this terrain.

There's a great thing about trail running that helps with these miles: walking.  Unlike road runners, all trail runners walk from time to time.  They know it's dangerous to navigate some terrain at a run, and when you're running 31 miles or more it's just not worth risking injuring yourself at every rough patch for a little extra momentum.  Only having run 1 trail race before (a 15k exactly 1 year prior on the same course), I was learning just how the later miles differ from a road race.

Almost 2 years ago, I ran my first full marathon.  I had trained for months to the point that I completed a 22 mile training run 3 weeks prior to the race.  I was used to the mileage, so the looming question was how to pace myself.  I could have kept to my training pace to ensure that I could finish, I could have aimed for a reasonable goal, or I could have pushed myself to try to reach my highest potential.  Unfortunately, I opted for the third.

During the weeks leading up to the race, I had run the numbers over and over and decided that I should be able to finish in about 5 hours 10 minutes without pushing myself too ambitiously.  But the more I looked at that number, the more I wanted to reach 5 hours flat.

I kept running the numbers again and again, played with the length of my walk breaks, walking vs. running pace, and first stretch vs. last stretch pace.  I had finally found a set of numbers that would get me close.  Close enough that, if I could summon the energy in the last few miles as the finish line was within reach, I could reach or break the 5 hour mark.  It was perfect.  Not impossible, not far from the pace I knew I could run, just enough to work.

I stuck to my plan on that race day.  My first few miles were a little faster, while I had adrenaline to pull me along, and my pace steadied as I pushed toward the 10 mile and half marathon mark.  It felt great until about mile 15.  I started to feel as if I was running out of fuel.  My legs still worked, but my heart rate was increasing and my lungs felt strained.  I pushed on for 1 more mile, and I knew.  I pushed too hard.  If this feeling had held until mile 20 I could make it, but this was too soon.  I couldn't push through this for 10 whole miles.

I walked.  A lot.  Probably 3 miles straight before I decided I was recovered enough to run, and by then I could only run about as often as I walked.

The Ultramarathon was different.  By mile 16 I had hoped to push back to the pacing I had maintained during the first hour (since I had returned to the easier terrain), but I also knew this would be the hard part of the race.  Right on schedule, my legs began to tire.  I had gained a running partner by that point (who would continue to help me pace the remainder of the course), and I told her "I'm going to be hurting in 3 more miles."

She told me to stay positive, but I couldn't avoid this reality.  It happened every time I passed the 16 mile mark.  First, my legs started to tire.  Then, walk breaks got longer.  By the time I reached mile 19, my legs were screaming, and I could hardly convince myself to begin, or even hold, a jogging pace.  Race day was no different.

I had reached the hardest point of the race, and it was time to dig deep.

More to come,


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Rockledge Rumble 50k - Part 2: Pacing the Way

By 8:00, 1 hour into the race, I was cruising along the trail with 3 people behind me: David from Odessa, Curtis, and Shannon.  I was the impromptu pacer for our misfit group at the time, and I was leading us down the trail at a good first-stretch pace.  Not too fast, so that we didn't burn out, but not so slow that we were wasting our energy before it started to wane.

I seem to end up in this position in trail races.  Early in the race, the runners are still a little crowded, and the trail is usually only wide enough to accommodate 1 runner until someone steps aside to let a faster runner pass.  I think I end up here from a lesson I've learned from almost 5 years of distance running: I run my own race.  I don't keep up a particular pace just because the guy in front of me is, and I try not to let the adrenaline get the best of me.  I stick to my goals, and I do my best to run no faster than what's best for me.  Since I'm not a follower, I guess that makes me a leader.  This group stuck with me until the first aid station.

To me, the idea of running your own race is the most important and most difficult lesson in distance running.  We look to others for advice and leadership, and while we take their nuggets of wisdom for our benefit, we have to understand that every runner is different.  I learned this lesson in a different way than most.

One of the great things about that 5k in 2009 was my running partner.  I didn't go lurking around the gym to find another runner, and I didn't try to schmooze my friends into taking up this challenge with me.  When I signed up for my first 5k, my wife signed up with me.  We registered together, we trained together, and we started the race together.  I wish we had finished together, because after I missed Katie's finish, it took another 15 minutes to find each other in the crowd.

This led to 4 half marathons in a year that we ran side-by-side.  My race was her race, my PR was her PR.  We signed up for Team in Training together, and we even took on roles as Mentors together in later seasons.  I had the best training partner I could have asked for.

Of course, taking on challenges with your spouse is just that: a challenge.  What we did was hard.  Training for and completing a distance run is tough, and sometimes it brings out the worst in you.  We saw each other at our most dejected, and we saw each other in pain, but we also held hands as we crossed finish lines, celebrated together, and hung our medals on the same rack.

After so many races side-by-side, we both started to look to our own individual goals.  We began to run races separately, and we had to re-learn our running habits.  We no longer had someone else to help gauge our pace, rather we had to manage it ourselves.  We didn't follow a run/walk schedule based on each others' needs, instead we drifted toward our own running priorities.  After 2 years of running, I finally started learning to pace myself.

I kept up my pacing as David, Curtis, and Shannon followed, and once they peeled away to visit our first aid station, I took off on my own.  My plan from the beginning was to eat every 5-6 miles and take a long walk break while I ate.  I enjoyed my break, then picked up the pace.  I knew that was starting to enter the most difficult part of the course.  This is where the race really started.

More to come,


Monday, November 11, 2013

Rockledge Rumble 50k - Part 1: The Start of an Adventure

It was 7:00 in the morning as I toed the start line in the state park with about 100 other runners by my side.  The sun had only just finished lighting up the sky on that cool Saturday, and we were prepared to start our race.  Moments ago, a friend asked if I was ready, to which I answered with a quick laugh and a "no."  I couldn't imagine that any of us were fully ready to start an Ultramarathon, and I didn't think I could ever wrap my head around a 50 kilometer (31.1 mile) run, even if I had just spent 5 months training for it.

But I've heard it said that we're never ready for the big challenges in our lives.  We are only ready enough.  The task ahead of me was daunting, but if I had been truly honest with myself, I was ready for an adventure.  I had to wonder how I reached this point in my life.

I first discovered distance running in Junior High.  I played tennis on the school team, and some of my favorite "off days" were the ones we spent running.  Not sprints and suicides, just running.  Sometimes our coach would point down the road to a driveway half a mile away, and we would head off for a mile.  Other times, when weather kept us inside, we would run laps around the top of the basketball colosseum with the cross country team for most of an hour.  I seemed to be the only one on the tennis team who enjoyed our running days.

I began using distance running to (literally) run off my pre-teen energy from time to time.  I would put on my tennis clothes and take on a few laps around our neighborhood.  My dad ran with me a few times, and this is when I learned that I didn't know how to slow down.  I only had 1 speed when running, and while I could keep it up for about 2 miles, it usually kept my dad from enjoying even 1 half-mile lap.

He would tell me that he spent a semester on his high school track team and how slow his 6:15 mile was compared with the seasoned track athletes.  I had never run faster than an 8 minute mile.  I started looking up to distance runners, knowing that they had accomplished more than I had, and that they had all worked hard to get there.

By college, I was out of shape and hadn't run in years.  Once or twice I ran a few 200 meter laps at our University's rec center, but that's it.  I finished out my college years 40+ pounds overweight with no drive to exercise.  I joined a gym after a while, and at times Katie and I kept up a routine of working out once or twice a week.  A desire finally built up in me to get fit.

The next February, almost 5 years ago, a friend encouraged Katie and I to run a 5k.  I could have accomplished this easily in my Junior High tennis days, but in 2009 this presented a challenge.  I don't know whether I have more redneck in me than I realized or if it's just testosterone, but I can't pass up a good challenge.

This was February 1st, and the race was February 28th.  Katie and I spent those 4 weeks running every other day, pushing back our first walk break farther and farther, until we were finally confident that we could (mostly) run for 3.1 miles.

The finish line was amazing!  Even though I walked close to half of the race, I sprinted to the finish as hard as I could!  I was greeted by cheers, congratulations, and even by a cold bottle of water.  I was ecstatic when I finished that race, and by the next morning I knew that I wanted to make myself a runner just to experience that feeling again.

This is where my journey began.  Years later, on November 9, 2013 at 7:00 in the morning, I started running my first Ultramarathon.

More to come,


Monday, September 16, 2013


When I was young, I thought there was a right and wrong choice in every situation.  Truth was right, and lies were wrong.  Love was good, and hate was bad.  There were lines drawn in the sand everywhere I looked, separating these two extremes into dichotomy, and my job (if I was to be a good person) was to find the line and never cross it.

Something about this world view didn't mesh with the world around me.

There's a part of my personality that doesn't fit with a black-and-white world.  It's an inquisitiveness and a curiosity.  Rules weren't clear until I understood the motivation behind them, and answers didn't make sense until I peeked behind the curtain to see how the cogs turned.  My mom calls it stubbornness, but to me it's no more or less than a hunger for understanding.

The first time I showed this hunger is one of my mom's favorite stories from my childhood.  I have no memory of the event, but the anecdote has been shared many times.  I was just a year and a half old, and in exploring the house, I came across the stereo.  When I touched it, I was told "no," a warning that I could either break something or hurt myself by playing with electronics.  At my ripe old age of 18 months, I didn't understand.  I reached out again, and again I was met with a rebuke.  As I continued to seek understanding, the rebukes turned to a simple slap on the wrist, and as the story goes, I continued to reach for the stereo , each time earning a slap on the wrist, until the back of my hand turned red from the punishment.

In that moment, there was a line drawn in the sand.  There was right and wrong, and wrong was touching the stereo.  The line was there for a reason, but in my immaturity and ignorance, the reason was unknown.  I saw the sand-line barrier, and I gazed across the line, unable to see the evil that lurked on the other side.  Rather than being afraid, I was eager to test the limit.

This story repeated itself over and over as I grew up.  Whether the line in the sand was drawn by parents, teachers, church leaders, or law makers, I constantly explored the land behind the line.

In 8th grade, I tested the limits of homework.  I had gained some autonomy from my parents watching over my shoulder, and I let a couple of assignments slip.  When my teacher didn't call me out for it, and when my parents weren't notified, I couldn't see the consequences.  I let a few more assignments slip, then a few more.  Before I knew it, I was sitting down with my teacher to be given the opportunity to make up weeks of homework in order to remain eligible for band and tennis.

This remained a fuzzy line for years.  I had learned that there was a point at which I could overlook assignments and keep my grades.  The consequences weren't black and white, rather they came on a sliding scale.  I would later learn to manage this reality in balancing a heavy college workload, but through high school and early college, I continued to fall behind the line and stumble down the slippery slope.  I eventually understood the reason for the rule, and I eventually learned to reconcile my understanding with the practice of earning grades.

But what I've learned more than anything is that rules are not just black and white.  There may be a time when withholding information from a friend is best for them.  There may be a time when breaking the rules is necessary to help others.  There may be a time when you have to sacrifice good for better, or chose bad over worse.

My favorite example of this is how we treat the homeless population.  I grew up hearing adults complain about how homeless people spent money that was given to them.  They spend it on cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, or just blow it on an unnecessarily expensive meal.  They ask for money on the side of the road rather than look for work.  We don't like to give them money, because they will probably blow it on a bad habit.

I remember a day when I was about 16, not long after I started driving.  We had a family lunch at Rudy's Barbecue, and I took some leftovers with me.  At the first stop light leaving the restaurant, we saw a homeless man with his dog.  His sign said something about needing food.  The voices echoed in my head, reminding me of all the bad ways he could spend any money I gave him, yelling that he should find a job and dig himself out of his hole.  But while I was thinking of all the reasons not to help him, I looked down and saw my leftovers.  He just wants food, and I have food.  I don't know how the puzzle pieces met in that moment, but before I knew it I was handing my leftover sausage to a homeless man, which he immediately shared with his dog.  Money wasn't the right answer, because in that moment, he really needed food.

There was another moment 5 years ago, when I sat on a bench to read while waiting for a friend to join me for dinner.  I was approached by a guy wearing an eye patch, and he told me that he needed help to find dinner and a place to stay the night.  Again, the words came out before I knew what I was doing.  I asked him if he wanted to sit, and he did.  He opened up about his situation, how he was assaulted with a crowbar years ago, and how this resulted in the loss of his eye.  He told me that he used to be a welder, which he can't do with only 1 eye.  He told me about his family in Houston, who he could no longer support.  I learned that more than anything else, this man needed sympathy and a friend.  His face glowed when I handed him a bill out of my wallet, but it glows more when I run into him around town.  I used to think he just needed cash, but nothing pleases him more than talking to a friend.  For Cedric, money wasn't the right answer, because he really needed the respect of a friend.

Now, I'm struggling through a relationship with a new friend who I met while selling an old TV on Craig's List.  He's on the verge of becoming homeless, and once or twice a week he calls asking for help.  I gave him a deal on the TV, and I've paid him for a couple hours of work twice since.  This time, I don't know what he really needs.  Sometimes he needs to vent, sometimes he needs money, but I still can't shake the feeling that there's something deeper.

These relationships, like many things in our world, don't have black and white answers.  Instead of a line in the sand, I'm navigating a minefield.  Every week, I struggle to discern the best way to help my friend, and every week the circumstances change.

It's times like this when I realize that I live in a world of grey.  And when there is no black or white, I can only keep my eyes open and constantly seek the lighter grey.

Always moving forward,


Monday, September 9, 2013

We Live in a Broken World

We live in a broken world.

I've heard this sentiment as long as I can remember, most often in reference to today's society.  The news is atwitter with stories involving celebrity drug scandals, violent crimes, and war.  We see homeless populations or unemployment rates on the rise, food prices that increase while farmer's earnings decrease, and good guys suffering while the bad guys go free.  The world is fraught with brokenness and evil as far as the eye can see.

But the "broken world" is more than today's society.  If you buy into the Biblical creation story, you believe as I do that the world was created fully good, fully in connection with its creator God.  And if you believe as I do, this world fell apart from the ultimate Good piece by piece, leaving God to His own devices and us embracing our own human desires.

It's hard to escape it!  Everywhere you look, you can find yet another example of brokenness.  Society seems to have lost all respect for its fellow man.  People care about nothing but themselves.  The world is just a big pile of selfish mess.

But is this the real world, or is it merely the view through a tinted lense?

Many times when I've watched a news report about a tragedy, I watch the emphatic interviewee make emotive statements with grand gestures about the situation, and I wonder: while the tragedy is real, does this person represent the way everyone feels?  Is this dramatic speaker a true representative of the community, or do they simply put on the face the nightly news wants to see?  In short, is the community as broken as they have been portrayed?

Occasionally I'll see a different kind of story, whether through an independent video or a mass publication, about happiness.  I always dig in.  The taglines all present the same tease: what is the secret to happiness?  Each claims to have the answer, and not surprisingly, the answers aren't all that different from each other.

Without fail, the answer has nothing to do with circumstances.  It isn't about your job, where you live, how big your family is, what hobbies you keep, how clean your house is, or how much money is in the bank.  It's never about how you look or how people perceive you.  The answer, inevitably, comes from within.

Studies show that approximately 90% of happiness is completely independent of external factors.

Others report that the best predictor of happiness with your current circumstances is how much gratitude you show for past or present circumstances.

Happiness, it turns out, is most influenced by you, not your circumstances.

So, I wonder, as I watch the dramatic reactions to major events: are these people in control of their happiness, or do they feel driven by their circumstances?  Do they have an ingrained habit of perceiving the bad in any situation instead of seeking out the good?  More to the point, if they didn't experience a flood/earthquake/layoff/shooting today, would they have felt just as badly about their day-to-day lives?

I also wonder about this person's neighbor.  The one whose interview wasn't played on the nightly news.  The one who always greets the neighbors with a "good morning!" and constantly carries a smile on his face.  Did the news network interview him?  Was his interview rejected because he refused to take the bait in an all-too-negative industry?  Imagine what his interview would have looked like.

I think this neighbor got something right.  I grew up hearing that Christians are "in the world, but not of the world," and I think too many Christians focus on the 2nd part.  They see the world, with all the tragedy and brokenness that comes with it, and they reject it.  We are not of the world.

But I believe this brick wall distinction falls short.  As much as people may want to become close to good and far from evil, we have to remember that the world is not inherently bad.  If you believe as I do, this world was created by the God of love.  It was created perfect and filled with limitless creatures made in the image of the God of love.  We are in the world that was created out of and into love!

And it's here that I identify with the neighbor.  I look at the situation through his eyes and see all of the families whose barriers were broken, leaving them free to love each other the way they have always wanted.  I see the community pulling together, the most fortunate giving whatever they have to their neighbors who need it most.  I even see hands reaching from around the country and around the world to lend resources, safety, and protection to people who they will never meet.  Through his eyes, I see good in the world.

And here, I know it's true: we live in a broken world.  But if you believe as I do, there's a whole lot of good left between the cracks.

Always moving forward,


Friday, August 30, 2013

γαρ δυναμις εν ασθενεια τελειται

No, your computer isn't malfunctioning.  The title of this post is a portion of II Corinthians 12:9 in the original Greek, and I've grown very fond of it during the last month.  What started as a meaningful summation of my dad's final months (see *LINK TO PERFECT IN WEAKNESS*) has become a bit of an obsession.  I looked up the verse a couple days after the funeral, and I found the Greek verbiage to sketch it into a tattoo design.

Quite honestly, the tattoo design was done as a catharsis.  I do this every few years when something major happens.  I've always wanted to have a tattoo, but I'm either too grounded or too chicken to follow through with having a piece of art permanently affixed to my body (it's probably the latter).  I'm also not much of an artist, so when I make the design, I usually end up with overly simple elements in overused arrangements that scream "cliche."

But something was different this time.  I played with graphical elements to represent II Cor 12:9, tried working "perfect in weakness" into the images, and even spelling out "II Cor 12:9."  I was spiraling into a cliche as usual when I found the original Greek.  Honestly, I first thought that using any kind of foreign lettering would add to the cliche, but instead it started to open my eyes to the meaning of this verse.

γαρ δυναμις εν ασθενεια τελειται

I started with Greek to English translations, but since this Greek was 2,000 years old, I didn't have much luck.  I tried searching dictionaries and lexicons for detailed meaning, then I came up with a transliteration of the verse.

For power in weakness perfect

A little nonsensical, right?  Well, the NIV translates this a little differently.  It says "for my power is made perfect in weakness."  I asked my brother (the Christian university graduate, twice over) for a little help.  He said he doesn't know much about ancient Greek, but he knew where to look.  The first thing he noticed was the absence of 1 word: my.

The Greek word μου represents the English word my, but it isn't included in the original Greek.  Apparently Biblical scholars don't believe this word was originally included in Paul's letter, and they even wrote footnotes mentioning the slight difference between the original Biblical texts.  Isn't this important?  This verse is supposed to represent God speaking to Paul!  He's talking about His own power, and isn't that the most important, most significant power out there?  But if we're talking about God's power, shouldn't the fact that it's His power be important?

Exactly.  The only power worth mentioning in all the universe is God's.  All other power is weakness compared to His.  Apparently Paul saw this so clearly that he saw no need for distinction.  But he did leave us another clue.

I found it in something that bugged me about the original Greek phrase for weeks: the final word, τελειται .  I know transliterations aren't an accurate representation of the original meaning, but something was missing.  The translation I found for τελειται was "perfect."  It's just a noun in the English language.  An object, even.  Sure, it could be used as an adjective, but even this leaves our sentence without a verb.  There's no action, no change, no moving forward!

Recently, I found the answer in a paper.  It was a short mention, only a couple of sentences in a footnote, in which someone defined τελειται a little more deeply.  The nearly anonymous author says that the root word of τελειται "denotes completion, accomplishment, or fulfillment."

Suddenly, perfect wasn't the right translation.  In my language, perfect is static, intangible, and superficial.  But Paul's intent was to shape what little power we have into completion, accomplishment, or fulfillment.

Paul's words, taken straight from the mouth of God, tell us that when we are weak, when we cannot persevere, and we have no strength left, we are transformed in to fulfillment!  He tells us that when our own strength fails, a greater power will step in and follow us to completion!  He says that in our greatest weakness, God will bring us to accomplishment.

In short, it's not about us, it's about what God's power can do through us.  (Thanks to Toby Slough for this sentence, which sums up my thoughts so well)

This phrase has meant so much to me during the last month.  I could spend hours reciting every moment that this verse has come to mind, and the myriad of ways that it has spoken to me, and I could spend days on my multifaceted theories of how these 5 words communicate nearly the entirety of the gospel.  Instead, I'll let you find your own meaning in these words.

γαρ δυναμις εν ασθενεια τελειται

Always moving forward,


P.S.: I have an artist picked out, and I plan to get the tattoo in the next couple months.  Wish me luck!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

This is Your Brain on Lingerie

Before I get going, I want to make something clear.  You're about to hear me talk about how a women's actions can affect a man negatively, but I assure you I will not defend men's negative actions against women.  You will not hear me assert a victim mentality for men's crimes against women, or blame immodesty for the rape culture present today.  Before you read on, I ask that you suspend these thoughts from your mind, because they are some of the most insulting arguments on any topic up for debate in this age, and we shall not lend them credence.

The topic of the day is modesty.  Being raised in a big youth group who took summer trips that involved pools, water parks, or the beach, I was exposed to the topic more than most young men.  With a brother who works in youth ministry and a sister-in-law who spends a lot of time with the youth group girls, I continue to hear Christian advice on this topic regularly.

The argument I hear most often goes something like this: "Men/boys react to the way you dress.  It's how they are wired, they can't help it!  When you dress provocatively, it causes them to have desires they shouldn't have.  It's not that you're doing anything wrong, but the way you dress could cause the men/boys around you to struggle with sexual sin.  Wouldn't it be better to dress modestly and give them one less temptation?"

Honestly, within a church youth group setting, this is a fairly easy discussion.  When you're already talking about how to do good in the world, it's easy to make the argument that exposing too much of your body isn't the best decision.  Moreso, when your demographic is made up of high school and junior high church folks, the mere fact that sex is discouraged is almost enough to make the argument for you.

But that's not the case for the rest of the world.  We live in a society where sex isn't discouraged.  Whether good or bad, society has decided that sex a good thing, not just in theory, but in practice.  Presenting yourself as "sexy" isn't taboo, rather it's encouraged!  And in light of this societal choice, modesty has become a very difficult choice to make.

For those who disagree with the arguments for modesty, there seems to be a common response.  It says "why am I responsible for their temptation and their sin?  Shouldn't they just learn not to treat women like objects?"  To an extent, I think you're right.  Unquestionably, men, both individually and as a society, need to develop a healthier view of women, and every man should treat every woman with respect.  However, there's more to it than this.

Studies have shown that a man's response to provocatively-dressed women is more than their choices.  They have found an actual chemical change that happens when a man sees a woman in minimal clothing.  While shown pictures of women in various levels of clothing, men were given a brain scan.  The researchers looked at what parts of the brain were "active" in different scenarios.  Consistently, the pictures with less clothing invoked the part of the brain associated with tools.  I mean this literally.  Tools, like hammers, drills, and saws.  Even more, some results showed the part of the brain associated with empathy and human interaction completely shut down.  Researchers were astounded at the results, and I am amazed by the implications.

But the problem with women dressing provocatively isn't causing men to struggle.  That struggle is truly out of your hands.  The heart of the problem is that, while the vast majority of men don't respond to immodesty with any direct negative action (unwanted advances, predatory behavior, or worse), the unavoidable biological reaction still has an effect.  Like a "harmless" racial joke or a biased news report, that tiny grain of prejudice nudges at their thoughts.  The reaction might not be direct, but it leaves an impression.

So what?  Why should a woman care what men think of them?

I'm glad you asked!  Women should care, not because a random person thinks badly about them, but because society gets nudged a little further toward devaluing women.  Look at Victoria's Secret, a business who made millions through advertizing with underwear-clad models and now has an entire evening of TV dedicated to parading these women across a stage.  Look at the websites (not to be named here) which provide lists of actresses who have appeared nude on screen, right down to the timestamp on the DVD.  Look at the female pop stars, including one who has been given headlines from every major news network in the country this week, who gain popularity by what they wear on stage.

Would you rather contribute to this society, which continually devalues and objectifies women, or would you rather contribute to a society that gives women the respect they deserve, treats them like people rather than objects, and judges them by their character instead of their gender?  When we discuss modesty, this is the underlying question.  What would you choose?

Today's post was inspired by this article published by The Atlantic.

Always moving forward,


Monday, August 12, 2013

My Crisis of Faith - Part 4

Before I get to the content of today's post, I want to give you some reassurance.  No, I will not make every future post about my dad or his death.  Yes, I will soon move toward lighter content.  I know you don't need to think about this as much as I do, so I'll do my best to make my public musings more relevant to the rest of you.  This will hopefully be a bit of a transition piece to move in that direction.

Death is hard, although I don't know what it's like to experience it first hand.  We'll all learn that experience someday, but until then we can only speculate.  My statement is about the second hand experience: permanently losing contact with a loved one, being near them when they lose the ability to respond to those around them, and watching as moving and breathing becomes more and more difficult for them.  This is hard.

I've heard some very "traditional" Christians make comments about death that I still can't understand.  They have said (or implied) that death shouldn't be hard for Christians.  They have said that because we believe in life after death that far surpasses life on earth, we have nothing to be sad about.  To this, I call BS.  And this is where my crisis of faith begins.

The above statements are more of a half-truth, and the half isn't always easy to believe in the heat of the moment.  The other half is about a person being permanently absent from your life, and for me, the second half tried hard to overshadow the first half during the days after my dad's passing.

In the heat of the moment, when we went from a world with my dad to a world without him, I was flabbergasted by comments made by those around me (alternative reading: those with stronger faith than mine).  The comments seemed to ignore the pain of the moment.  As I knelt beside his hospital bed, unable to take my hand off of his arm, physically shaking from fear and sadness, they made what could almost be described as jokes.

I remember my aunt saying that dad is in Heaven dancing now (his legs hadn't worked well in over a year, and he hadn't been out of bed in over a month), and my mom's response that his dancing wouldn't be a pretty sight given his dancing skills.  She actually laughed just moments after he passed, saying how glad she was that he was finally done being stuck in this stupid, broken body that had held him back for so long.  I could not comprehend the joy that was expressed in this moment.

I remember my brother's commentary on watching his final moments.  We had both watched him after he took his final breath, and we saw the physical signs of life taper off.  He said that this was a neat thing to see, when I had watched it unblinkingly like a train wreck, terrified that his life would end yet knowing there was no other way.  I could not comprehend the sense of awe that was expressed in this moment.

I remember the following morning, just hours after he passed, right before we settled into my mom's living room for the skyped church service that had been set up for my dad just a couple months ago (the whole extended family would join in this time).  We disassembled the hospital bed and got it out of the living room, but there was a big "Happy Birthday" balloon still tied to the bed from my dad's 56th birthday celebration just 2 weeks before.  I remember vaguely hearing of an idea to use the balloon in some form of memorial, but I didn't fully understand until 2 big bags of helium balloons showed up at our door.  I watched as children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, and great nieces and nephews wrote final thoughts of encouragement to my dad, then stapled their notes to the balloon ribbons.  I watched as everyone, young and old, brought their balloons into the front yard, and I watched as everyone released their balloons to the sky yelling a "Happy Birthday" to celebrate my dad's first day in heaven.  I could not comprehend the excitement that was expressed in this moment.

I did not comprehend what I saw, but I was glad I saw it, because in the hours and days after these moments, understanding finally set in.  While I was still filled with pain from the loss of my dad, I was encouraged as person after person shared their faith with me.  With each act of faith, my own was restored bit by bit.

I began to have faith enough to believe that dad was in heaven dancing and running, but hoping that he focused more on the running to spare other Heaven-dwellers from the sight of his dancing.

I began to have faith enough to see that signs of life on earth are fleeting, and that the end of your heartbeat isn't the end of you.

I began to have faith enough to celebrate my dad's new life in Heaven.

We talked a lot about the "cloud of witnesses" last week, as mentioned in Hebrews 12:1.  Others said that my dad joined the great cloud of witnesses and was now speaking up on our behalf, but that's not how I saw it.  As I saw the great acts of faith in the wake of my dad's death, and as I saw the sheer number of people who were so touched by his life that they took off work on a Tuesday afternoon (even rode a motorcycle 5+ hours each way) just to attend his funeral, I saw a great cloud of witnesses surround my family and me, and this cloud of witnesses has restored my faith.

Because death is hard, and because I needed so much support to get through this week, to everyone who surrounded us during this time, thank you.  You probably didn't know it, but you restored my faith.  I sincerely, wholeheartedly thank you.

Always moving forward,


Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Most people would say that Thursdays aren't all that special.  They would say that  Thursdays are just the day before Friday, another work day, and maybe the night they catch their favorite TV shows.  They would say that Thursdays mean nothing.  I wholeheartedly disagree.

12 years ago, I turned 15.  As most teenage boys in America, I was excited to start driving.  I even had my first car lined up.  It was a blue 1992 Oldsmobile Achieva, and it was awful.  The car was handed down from my brother, who started driving the car 3 years prior when he first got his license.  Before that, it was handed down from my cousin, who drove it from a rural town (and I mean really rural, with a population just in the double-digits), racking up plenty of rough miles on farm roads.  Before that, a pair of twin girls in the same area drove it as their joint first car.  I was the 5th first-time driver to use this car, but still I was excited to get behind the wheel.

I turned 15 in the middle of the school year, so it took some time to figure out scheduling driver's ed.  Instead of signing up with a corporate driving school, coordinating yet another ride to and from an after-school activity, and potentially losing all of my excitement about driving, we chose another route.  Dad researched homeschooling the driver's ed course, and realized it wasn't all that difficult.  He signed me up, and we started the course.

Our driver's ed plan was simple.  We sat down to go through the textbook every Thursday evening.  We started at home, but when we needed to avoid the usual distractions (lessons learned the first couple of weeks), we relocated.  Every Thursday, we drove to Daybreak Coffee Roasters to work through the course.  I would drink a Cafe Mocha, he had black coffee, and we shared a slice of Black Russian Cake.  If neither of us felt like cake, he would splurge and drink a Cafe Royale, a breve flavored with honey.

As you've probably guessed, this is where I first honed my love of coffee.  After a couple months, I started to experiment with other drinks on the menu.  There was the Caramel Machiato (the Starbucks type, not the traditional version), the Nutty Irishman (latte with hazelnut and irish creme), the Nirvana (cafe mocha with caramel), and the Mudslide (espresso shake - yes, it was made with real ice cream - with chocolate and hazelnut).  It wasn't until college that I learned to enjoy black coffee, but my first love was Daybreak on Thursday nights.

The more chapters we finished, the more comfortable we became with our Thursday routine.  Many weeks, we would finish the chapter early and burn some time at the coffee shop.  We found the chess board on their shelf of board games, and Dad and I would play a couple of matches.  Once I learned the game, we found that we were pretty evenly matched.  We would sometimes stay long enough to play 2-out-of-3, and it was always a 2-to-1 finish, the title always bouncing back and forth between us.

Driver's ed only lasted about 4 months, even when we only covered a chapter a week.  I don't remember ever discussing what we would do with our Thursdays when it was over, but Dad and I somehow made it back to Daybreak every Thursday.  When the curriculum no longer dictated our plans, we got more use out of the chess board.  We would sometimes make it up to 4 or 5 matches in an evening, and we still didn't have a clear winner.

While we played, we talked through our weeks.  I heard some of his work stories, and he heard all about school, band, and Katie (who I had dated for almost 2 years at the time).  There was never an evening that we didn't feel like talking, and there were never grudges between us (over chess or anything else) when we were at Daybreak.

As the months went on, we sometimes brought others into our little circle.  Mom would occasionally come with us, and so would Katie.  Daybreak felt so much like home to me that I started to go to Daybreak on my own time.  Most often I would take Katie after school, and we would relax, catch up on homework, and do that disgusting kind of lovey-dovey talking that young couples do.  By junior and senior year of high school, Daybreak had become the place to be for school projects, big research papers, and cram sessions before major exams.  But as many people as I met at Daybreak, Thursday was always the night that Dad came with me.

After high school, I left my hometown for college.  Schedules changed, visits to the coffee shop were replaced with phone calls, and we relied more and more on my weekend visits to catch up.  A few years ago, Daybreak closed the location on our side of town and rebranded the remaining location.  Years went on, and dad had trouble getting out of the house for coffee.  Thursday nights weren't Thursday nights anymore, and Daybreak wasn't Daybreak.

But the great thing about Thursday nights at Daybreak was that their effects continued long after Thursdays and spread far beyond the walls of Daybreak.  Thursday nights at Daybreak were the catalyst that started something great.  After Thursday nights at Daybreak, Dad was no longer just a parent or an authority figure.  After Thursday nights at Daybreak, Dad was my friend.

Earlier this week, I was let in on something Dad told Mom over and over during the last 12 years.  He told her that teaching me driver's ed was one of the best decisions he's ever made, because it started Thursday nights at Daybreak.  I wholeheartedly agree.

Always moving forward,


Sunday, August 4, 2013


This post was typed early Saturday while I stayed up to keep an eye on Dad. Just an hour or two after I finished, he passed on. I haven't edit the post except for the addition of this paragraph. It will be something I go back and read over and over during the coming years, but its personal nature may not be very interesting for my readers. I hope you all understand.

I'm not very good at expressing my feelings.  Wait, strike that.  I'm not very good at talking about my feelings.  Sure, I understand the purpose of those discussions, and I certainly know the importance of them, but when it comes down to it, I just can't get the words out.

Lately, this skill has been put to the test.  With all the highly emotional stuff crossing my path in the last couple of years (infertility treatments, pursuing adoption, the loss of my grandfather, and the apparent impending loss of my father), I haven't had any short of important feelings to share.  The problem isn't having these feelings, it's expressing them.

With infertility and adoption issues on the forefront of my priorities, I think a lot about the prospect of parenthood.  I think of caring for a baby, I fill my head with ideas of what I will do for fun with my son or daughter, I try to plan those little teaching moments that make all the difference, and I picture what he or she might look like the day our baby is finally placed in our arms.  I know guys aren't usually seen as the ones with 'baby fever,' but I'll admit to God and everyone that I'm infected.  In fact, I'll tell you just how bad my symptoms are.

1) My wife accuses me of being a baby hog.  You know, like ball hogs in basketball.  I get to the baby first, and I hold him/her too long.  More than once we've left a gathering, only for me to find out that Katie felt like she completely missed her opportunity of baby time.  And it's all my fault, because I'm a big, fat, smelly baby hog who can't share the baby with my wife.

2) My family says I'm the favorite play buddy for all of my young nieces, nephews, and cousins.  I don't know how true this is, but I see where they get it.  I just love playing with them, whether it's the 3-month-olds or the 5-year-olds.  They get so stinking excited when you do something stupid for their entertainment!  And with the younger ones, you can do the exact thing time 40 times in a row before they get bored with it and stop laughing.  I'm telling you, doing stupid stuff in front of kids is a huge opportunity for increased self-worth.  If you're not doing it, you're missing out!

3) I cry about really dumb things.  Seriously stupid, unimportant, virtually meaningless things.  My cousin asked to say the mealtime prayer?  Tears.  A 4-year-old stranger reaches for his dad after he yawns or stubs his toe?  Tears.  My nephew asked me to read The Little Engine That Could, but when he got bored his older sister wanted to listen from across the room?  Tears.  Yes, this actually happened today when I got to the "I think I can..." part.  She got the abridged version.

The last part is what gets me every time.  Increasingly over the last 2 years, when I get emotional, I get choked up, and when I get choked up, I can't speak without my voice cracking, getting squeaky, and sounding generally as far from manly as you can get.  It is a very real concern.

I've had the same problem more and more as I have to deal with sickness and death.  I'm way too macho to succumb to my pitiful squeaky voice, so when the emotions hit, I tend to say nothing.  Literally nothing.  I try to communicate my thoughts through implicit yet subtle nods, smiles, eyebrow raises, and any other movement that has no concrete meaning.

I have yet to figure out how to fix my communication issues, but I have learned to find catharsis.  When I can't express my emotions through the spoke word, I look for other ways.

The first method (and probably most obvious to this audience) is writing.  I fell back into writing the day after my grandad passed away.  I had seen him just a couple weeks before, and we didn't have anything left to communicate.  But, I missed his last day then heard details from the family about the closure they felt from being with him.  I wanted to find that closure, so I ended up writing about him.  I didn't have a medium in mind, I just wanted to write.  Since the Newtown school shooting had happened earlier in the week, there had been a comment that "those kids needed a grandad in heaven, so God sent them Bill."  It stuck in my mind so strongly that the amorphous, unplanned piece of work came out in the form of an open letter to the victims of the shooting.  I felt relief and peace, and the more I looked at the 'letter' the more I hoped it would reach one of these victims, that it might communicate directly to a parent of loss that my just sent a great guy to be a heavenly grandad to their recently deceased children.  I didn't have a blog at the time, so I posted it on Facebook.  I never heard whether it reached the intended audience, but the sheer volume of positive feedback pushed me back to writing.  This blog is actually my only medium right now, but now it's like my couch sessions with a shrink.

The second is running.  For a few years I've gone through seasons when my first response to stress is the need to go for a run.  I'm sure it seems counter-intuitive that a form of exercise that produces a constant form of stress and exertion would actually relieve stress, but it really works.  When I run, I get out of my head for a while.  Or do I delve deeper into my head?  It's hard to say which it is, but I think it's both.  There's a strange combination of meditation and distraction that happens during a run.  I occupy my conscious thought with the details of the run (how my legs feel, if I need water, how close I am to optimal training pace), but I'm left without the distractions of small talk and Facebook news.  My mind is left free to run through the real, meaningful topics of the day.  I start to salve problems relating to my personal relationships and internal struggles.  Quite often I come back from a run with a new outlook on a complicated problem.

The third is just plain and simple distraction.  It doesn't work well, and it's easily the least effective and least healthy on this list.  When I don't have the motivation to do anything else, I simply turn on the TV or turn to Youtube.  That's right, i turn to brain rot.  It doesn't help me solve my problems or express my emotions, but at least it lets my mind rest for a while.  I mean, who couldn't use a little bit of (literally) mind-numbing entertainment from time to time?

Maybe someday I'll master the art of talking through tears, but for today I think I'll just keep writing, running, and rotting.

Always moving forward(ish),


Friday, August 2, 2013

Perfect in Weakness

Right now I'm sitting next to a hospital bed in my parents' living room, my feet propped on the bed next to my dad's.  I keep looking over at my dad to check on him, reaching over to squeeze his hand or feel his pulse.  The hard truth is that he is on his last leg.

For the last 6 months, our family has been dealing with this difficult progression.  With each visit and each conversation, we delve deeper into the very real facts and emotions involved.  We talk through the pain, and we reminisce over great memories that will never be erased.

I keep remembering little things, like the way dad wrestled with us as kids or his food preferences.  We've laughed about his favorite movie (The Princess Bride) and re-told his favorite joke (Duck Food, see footnotes).  All kinds of anecdotes were revisited, and we relished the looks on the faces of friends and family who were hearing the stories for the first time.

There was the time he brought the wrong lunch to work.  My dad, the least picky eater in the world, was always happy to bring leftovers to work for lunch to save a buck.  He never complained about reheated meat loaf or spaghetti, but one day he accidentally grabbed a tupperware full of his least favorite food: lima beans.  Rather than making the drive home to trade them in for a real meal, or even eating out for once, he suffered through an entire lunch of lima beans.  Lima bean jokes followed him for years, pointing out his sheer commitment to frugality.

We recalled the planning session for my brother's wedding, which was to involve some level of fireworks.  We found sparklers and verified their legality within city limits, but a few artillery shells during their walk out of the church would've really made it special.  We made calls to the Fire Marshall's office to find out what we needed to do or who we needed to involve to make this happen, but the Fire Marshall wouldn't have it.  We sat down, a little dejected, to decide what to do.  My dad, the quintessential rule follower, gave the first response: "Let's do it anyway!  We can just run away really fast after we shoot them off."  This briefly debunked his goody-goody status and earned him the nickname "sparky," and yes, we did shoot off the fireworks in the middle of town (and yes, the Fire Marshall caught us).

There were plenty of funny quips to go around, but the real stories weren't funny at all.  While some people weren't in on the inside jokes, we all have clear memories of the great character my dad has displayed.

Everyone talked about his strength during the last few months while his condition deteriorated.  We were all impressed that, whether his weak legs forced him into a walker or his pain bound him to the hospital bed, he always tried to make his visitors at home.  He would let others choose the TV channel, minimize his own pain to avoid awkward feelings, and keep himself awake to keep conversation going.  His constant selflessness was like a shining beacon, and it repeatedly convinced others to pay it forward.

But what I noticed wasn't his selflessness during the last few months.  Instead, I thought of the time he spent with our family after a long day's work or a long week of school projects, and I thought of the constant positive energy he gave us no matter how tired he was.  I remembered all the times he pursued my interests instead of his own, just because he knew it would bring us closer together.  I cherished every time he told me he was proud of me, but more specifically the finish line of my marathon, when he stood by a rail between hundreds of spectators, watched for me to run past, and waited almost 30 minutes in the cold rain just so he could yell "YOU'RE MY HERO!!!" at me as I made my final sprint to the finish line.  After 27 years of knowing him, I knew these memories were nothing more or less than the outflow of his selfless character and his drive to be a great father.

Everyone talked about his godly pursuits during the last few months.  We heard of discussions over Romans 8, when my dad expressed his desire to find joy in suffering through his symptoms, yet we all saw this joy in his eyes every time his disease progressed.  We were told about my dad's laments that, once he was house bound, he might not be able to reach out to people in meaningful ways anymore, yet the fruits of his spiritual labor were never so prevalent as they were during his house bound months.

But what I noticed wasn't his godliness during the last few months.  Instead, I remembered the countless mornings I came to the breakfast table to see dad during his morning Bible study, taking notes for his next study group.  I pictured the missionaries he supported (by friendship, not only finances), who became lifelong friends in Brazil, and who became such strong friends that they made international calls just to let my dad hear their voice during what seem to be his last days.  I felt the ever-steady drive of his faith and morals, never bending to fads or compromising to meet his own desires.  I looked back on the 27 years of godly life that I have been blessed to witness, and I knew they were nothing more or less than the outflow of his faith.

Everyone talked about the last few months, and I heard over and over that they were extraordinary.  I knew there was more to the story, but they were right.  The last 6 months, even the last 4 years of my dad's life have radiated a good, godly, strong, faithful, and loving man, moreso than any other man I've known.  He has shown faith in fear, hope in despair, and love in pain.  I have been amazed at what I've seen, so I wondered what changed in recent months.

But then I remembered the last 27 years.  While the last few months have been extraordinary, they are no more extraordinary than every other month of his life.  He has always been faithful in fear, even when his fears involved the future of his kids.  He has always been hopeful in despair, even when the future reeked of suffering and loss.  He has always loved in the midst of pain, whether the pain of rejection or the pain of his disease.  Even more amazingly, he has always been humble, never letting attention to be drawn to his own good works.

Looking back at his amazing life, I want to say that he didn't deserve his disease.  I want to say that he didn't deserve the atrophy in his legs, the weakness in his hands and shoulders, or the pain throughout his body.  I want to say that the world would be better if great men like him didn't suffer, but I've learned better in the last 24 hours.

Through the suffering of his disease, my dad has been given the opportunity to display the fullest extent of faith, hope, and love.  Through his suffering, my dad has shown the light of the Lord.  It is truly brighter than he could ever reach by his own strength, more than any flawed person could attain.  This light is more brilliant than anything man-made; it is the light of perfect love, made perfect in human weakness.

As I contemplate the life of this great man, I delight in his suffering and the things he would call weakness, because he would tell you that these are the next-to-greatest gifts he has been given.  The greatest being the gift of pure love, killed on a cross to cover the cost of our imperfection.

II Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Always moving forward,


*Duck Food:

A duck walks into a bar.  He asks the bartender "got any duck food?"  The bartender says "no, of course we don't have any duck food!"  The duck leaves, but returns the next day asking "got any duck food?"  The bartender says "I told you we don't have any duck food!  Get out of here!"  The duck leaves again, but returns again the next day asking "got any duck food?"  The bartender says "That's it. This is a bar, not a pet shop.  If you ask for duck food again, I'm going to nail your feet to the wall!"  The duck leaves.  He returns yet again the next day, approaches the bar, and asks "got any nails?"  The bartender is confused and says "no, we don't have any nails."  The duck nods, then asks "got any duck food?"

Monday, July 15, 2013

What the Jury Didn't Say about Trayvon Martin

This weekend, the US media has been flooded with news and opinions about the Trayvon Martin v. George Zimmerman trial.  Let's recap the story.

February 2012, Zimmerman was monitoring his gated neighborhood as part of the neighborhood watch.  One evening, Zimmerman saw Martin near the gate of the neighborhood and believed his actions were suspicious.  After calling police, Zimmerman approached Martin, who became nervous about Zimmerman's approach.  In some way, the two clashed, and Treyvon was killed by a gunshot wound from Zimmerman's gun.

Unfortunately, there is no solid record of how the two clashed.  Zimmerman claims Treyvon led with an assault, but Treyvon's advocates indicate that Zimmerman's choice to pursue Treyvon in the dark was enough to justify defensive actions against Zimmerman.  Each side would have you believe that they were acting in self defense, and neither had solid evidence to support their claims.

At the conclusion of the trial, Zimmerman was found Not Guilty for the murder of Treyvon Martin.

Here's where the opinions started.  Everyone, from national news networks to Facebook users, started to weigh in.  Some were glad that Zimmerman got his day in court, his chance to put his facts to record.  Others believed that Zimmerman got out on a technicality, that he should have been found guilty and punished to the fullest extent of the law.  Still many others believe that this is an affront to civil rights, that the jury made it OK for blacks to be stereotyped, and those stereotypes to be pursued to the point of murder.

Of course, this all leads to my opinions.

First, I am glad Zimmerman had the chance to defend himself.  Without this right, our country's justice system would be chaos.  But that doesn't mean that I fully agree with the verdict.

Second, I do wish Trayvon could have seen justice done as a result of his death.  I don't mean that he deserved revenge or that Zimmerman should be severely punished, but Trayvon deserves for the world to know that he was wronged.  Luckily, that ship hasn't sailed, and it bring me to my main point.

Third, this doesn't have to be an affront to civil rights, primarily because this trial wasn't about whether or not Trayvon was stereotyped.  The trial was only about whether Zimmerman beyond a reasonable doubt had no right to defend himself.  Because there are no hard facts about how the altercation played out, there was way too much doubt in the courtroom, so Zimmerman was not truly proven guilty of murder.  Does this mean that Zimmerman is 100% innocent?  To that, I give a big, hairy, resounding NO!

Last week's trial was a criminal one.  The trial was the law enforcement system making the case that Zimmerman's actions arose to the point of cold blooded murder.  But Zimmerman has not stood trial for civil rights violations against Trayvon.

What does this mean to the American community?  It means that racism has not been upheld by the court.  It means that Civil Liberties are still defensible by law.  It means that we have not taken a step backward in the fight for racial equality, and it means that we have the opportunity to turn this into a giant step forward.

After all of these opinions being aired, and with all of this potential conflict like static hanging in the air waiting to ignite, we are left with one question: How will we respond?

We can choose arguments and violence, fighting fire with fire, hoping that one of them will be extinguished by the blaze.  We can point fingers to decide who deserves the worst punishment, hoping that revenge will make our point meaningful.  Or we can choose to love, showing the world that we can unite in our differences instead of exploiting each other because of them.  By choosing love, we can leave behind the perspectives of judgment and blame to show others that they are people who deserve the same dignity and respect as the rest of us.

How will you respond?

Always moving forward,


PS: I hate to make one person the butt of the issue.  Zimmerman has the same rights we do, including his innate right to dignity and respect.  I hope the best for him as he works to move past what has happened.  I hope he can eventually find forgiveness, both for the people who approach him with torches and pitchforks in the name of revenge, and for himself because of whatever happened that night.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Faithful Discussion About the Death Penalty

I was recently invited to an event discussing the death penalty, with the same title as this post.  There would be a screening of a film, a panel discussion, and some free form discussion on the topic.  I was urged strongly to come by my friend Jeff, who was moderating the event.

This isn't a topic I've thought much about until recently.  As you may have read, my recent post entitled A New Command I Give You discussed the implications of the death penalty and revenge against criminals as a whole.  I also recounted my experience as a juror in this post, which is my still my most influencing experience with the justice system.

Going into the event, I considered myself quite clearly against the death penalty for no other reason than I thought it wrong.  I vaguely recognized that the death penalty put blood on our hands ('our' being the jurors, the judge and attorneys, the legislature, and the citizens of the state whom these people all represent), and I didn't like this.  I knew that I supported forgiveness over retribution (in principal, at least, if not in practice).  But these ideas were unformed and generic.

I was intrigued to hear these ideas fleshed out, as well as new ideas that hadn't come to me before this event.

1. The death penalty is expensive

The standard statistic is that a death row inmate costs 3 times what a life prisoner does.  The statistics are slightly more significant in Texas, although each state varies.

Does this convict me to oppose the death penalty?  Not really, but it's an important issue to discuss when considering a change in law.

2. The death penalty doesn't work

To punish a killer by killing is irrational.  To teach the community that killing is wrong by killing the killer is backwards.  There may be an argument that the death penalty keeps the killer from killing again, but life in prison accomplishes the same goal without the destruction.

This is a little more convincing.  I believe punishment should have a heart of discipline, which produces change instead of resentment.  We can't help a person overcome their shortcomings to reach a better life if we just kill them off.  I would much rather see them learn, grow, be healed, and mature during the course of their life.

3. Family of victims who are avenged by the death penalty rarely move on

This is a soft statistic, but it's demonstrated in the film screened at the event.  Victims (or families of victims) deserve to move on from their tragedy.  If they don't move on, they become trapped in a life of resentment and bitterness, tainting the entire world around them through the lense of their tragedy.  Those who forgive the criminal to the point where they don't seek revenge seem to move on to a more productive, happy life much easier than those who seek revenge through the death penalty.

Now we're getting somewhere.  I know most people don't care much about the criminal, since "he made his choice," but now we're talking about the benefit of the victims.  There's still some trouble with this argument, though, since many people don't put much stock in intangible ideas like forgiving and "moving on."  But I think common sense supports the far and wide benefit of a joyful life over a resentful one.

4. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind

A point was raised by a panelist about the original "eye-for-an-eye" laws found in the early chapters of the Bible.  He said that this principal isn't in line with our gut instincts.  That our gut instincts would say "he took my eye, so I'll take both of his eyes, steal his wife, and burn his house down."  So to tell an early culture that you should just take what they took from you was revolutionary!  It demonstrated control and consideration, rather than raw vengeance.  Today, we even consider "eye-for-an-eye" to be barbaric because of how we've learned the principal of control and consideration in our culture.

This blows me away, partly because I learned something new about one of the oldest 'rules' in the world.  But mostly, it starts to put a voice to what I believe.  We may think we've moved miles past the olden days of "eye-for-an-eye," but the death penalty shows that our animalistic tendencies still push us toward flagrant revenge.  Once we recognize this, we can see the death penalty for what it is: murder by the state.  Whether just or unjust, it is, most basically, revenge for what they did to us.

5. We are all human, and we are all broken

This sums up the entire issue for me.  It also cuts to the heart of racism, homophobia, nationalism, and many other major issues in our world.  When we see people as people, it becomes much harder to mistreat them.

But that's just it.  We don't see all people as people.  Black people have been identified as sub-human, undeserving of the rights white people claim.  Foreigners have been dubbed barbarians, their lifestyle fit to be destroyed.  Gay people have been called mentally unbalanced, making it ok to treat their identity like a disease that should be eradicated through drugs.  And people who have made mistakes different from our own have been called criminals, allowing us to treat them as scum rather than trying to help them work through their wounds that took them so far off track in the first place.

I'll leave your conclusions to you, but my decision is to oppose the death penalty.  I would be interested to hear any opposing arguments if you would like to share them.

Always moving forward,


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

My Childhood Fantasy

Recently, I volunteered to help out my favorite radio station (yes, I'm going to plug it now!),  89.7 Power FM.  It transmits here in the DFW area, and a little bit north into Oklahoma.  They also transmit through an iPhone App and their website,

My favorite thing about the station is their music.  They play stuff that just doesn't make radio very often.  The genre is Christian Rock, and they play anything from Third Day to Demon Hunter, which includes a great mix of Relient K, Audio Adrenaline, Run Kid Run, and several other artists that fall into my top 20 list.

But a close second (and often fighting for first) is their conviction.  They are first and foremost a ministry.  The station reaches a lot of teens who shy away from Christian music because of quality, or just because they don't enjoy the sound of the Contemporary Christian genre.  The station has even kept their set up as a listener-supported station, running solely off of the donations of their listeners and including plenty of Christian material in their productions.

OK, plug done.  The real point of my story is what happened the night I volunteered.  I came in to help process calls for their donation drive, but with the load lighter than expected, the volunteers had a lot of time to hang out, help the DJ fill out the night's playlist, and keep the staff entertained.  During the evenings, the DJ's like to come up with challenges for the listeners, and they often involve a reward for reaching a donation milestone, so we helped the DJ brainstorm.

Tonight's reward?  Well, it was more of a punishment, and we suggested people call in with donations to prevent it.  If we didn't get enough calls, we, the DJ and volunteers, would sing to them.

We told listeners how unfortunate it would be to lose the quality music on this station, and if they lost it, they might have to listen to something more like us.  Singing A Capella renditions of their favorite rock songs.  At least it's better than dead air!  OK, even that's a stretch.

Funny enough, we immediately got a few more calls, but none of them begged us to abstain.  So we kept up the premise, sifted through a list of classic Christian Rock songs, and we settled on one to sing at the end of the 9:00 hour before we all went home.  We were to sing Jesus Freak.

The time came, and we put on the DC Talk track in the background.  From the first chord through the refrain, we belted it out for the world to hear.  It wasn't pretty, and there were times only one of us knew the lyrics, but we did it.  I even had a moment during TobyMac's 2nd verse, when nobody else knew the words by heart, so I sang solo into the live microphone.  For literally 15 seconds, I had my 15 seconds of fame.

I didn't put the two thoughts together until the end of the night, when we were all going our own ways, but the situation felt familiar.  There was a sense of deja vu about it.  It hadn't happened before, but I realized that I had imagined it before.  Like many songs I enjoyed singing along with in my childhood, at some point I imagined rocking out in front of a microphone.  It didn't matter if it was in a recording studio, a live stage, or a DJ's booth, the fantasy had me belting out my favorite songs to an audience.

Since I wanted this so badly when I was young, I had to challenge myself with the big question: Was it everything you dreamed?  Considering the fantasy also included a sold-out show or a million-man fan base, nighttime radio probably fell a bit short.  And I think we sang a closer resemblance to track 9 on the CD (Jesus Freak - Reprise) than to the popular single (look it up if you don't remember... it's worth the laugh!).  But at least I remembered the words, my voice didn't crack on the high notes, and it was fun!  Since I apparently didn't dream of curing cancer or traveling to Mars when I was a kid, my dream was nicely obtainable.

But I want to push it a step further: Would my 13-year-old self be proud?  That's tough.  Why did I want musical success at that age?  Was it the fun, or was it the fame?

Unfortunately, I think it was more about the fame.  I saw the way the world reacted to great singles like Jesus Freak, and I noticed the way I felt listening to the music.  I wanted to have that effect on people, and I think I wanted them to recognize me for it.

I think I've always been caught between the idea of making a big impact and being recognized for the impact I make.  I know the impact is good, but too often I drift toward recognition.  I hear myself narrating an interview in my head or wonder how my actions would look in newsprint.  I daydream that through an accidental run-in with a member of the press, I'm suddenly the center of a great news story.  Maybe I even end up on Good Morning America and the Today Show before it's all over!

In the 14 years since I was 13, I've continued to struggle with the allure of fame.  Whether it's the thought of publishing an essay in a scholarly journal or giving a presentation to a large crowd, the idea of fame still tries to drive me from my path.  And in those 13 years, I've learned that aspiring for fame before function is like aiming for Mars when you need to reach the Moon.  You might make progress, but you'll never hit your target.

I'm learning this lesson slowly.  Now, instead of hoping for a run-in with the press, I worry about it.  Instead of seeking recognition, I avoid it.  I don't do this because fame is bad, but because I know I have a problem with fame the way alcoholics have a problem with alcohol.  I'm afraid that once I get a taste of it, I'll just keep searching for more.

As I'm writing this, I haven't heard from anyone who recognized my voice on the radio.  At first I wanted to, knowing there would be more curious looks than compliments, so that I could recount and relive my 15 seconds of fame.  I wanted to know just how crazy we were and just how bad it sounded.  I wanted to know if they were impressed by my rendition of TobyMac or if it left something to be desired.

But I think it's better if I don't.  My 13-year-old self may kick me in the shins for letting this moment go, but at the wise old age of 27, I think I'm happy just to keep the memories.

Always moving forward,


Monday, April 22, 2013

A New Command I Give You

A week ago today, a tragedy occurred at the hands of two individuals.  At least 3 lives were ended by their choices, and hundreds were injured.  For 2 days, US intelligence investigated the crime while the country honored the dead and injured.  For 2 days, law enforcement hunted the suspects while the country did their best to help.  And for the 3 days since the capture of the final suspect, the country has become inundated with a resurgence of verbal violence.

I can understand the reaction.  We, as a country, were attacked and hurt.  Families have been forever changed as a result of the attack.  People want retribution.  They want the criminals to get what they deserve.  They want justice.

Normally, justice would be served in a courtroom.  Opposing groups of lawyers would present evidence and lack thereof.  A judge would preside to ensure the laws were upheld, that neither side was treated unfairly.  A jury of 12 average Americans would hear the evidence, and they would finally be asked to decide the accused person's fate.  They would assign the proper punishment based on the evidence, whether that be fines, community service, jail time, or death.

What surprised me first after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured was the energy of the crowds in Boston.  While the suspect in the procession of emergency vehicles back to the police station, the city emerged after days of lockdown to give each one a hero's welcome.  But the energy of the crowd was something more than excitement.  It seemed vindictive.

The city wasn't just proud of law enforcement for "catching the bad guy," they were ready to assign punishment.  Parts of the crowd looked like they came out to catch a glimpse of the bad guy so they could do their worst to him.

The next morning, I read that Dzhokhar hadn't been Mirandized.  This was done initially, but the formal decision would take time.  The news media said the decision may hold.  The suspect may not be allowed an attorney, and he may not be allowed due process at all.  I read that the 19 year old boy who moved to the US at the age of 8 might be tried as a foreign terrorist.

From this point forward, what surprised me most were the jeers.  Social media was full of angry, violent, and vengeful statements about what Dzhokhar deserved.  He should be tossed in a pit and left to die.  He should rot in prison.  He deserves the death penalty.

Finally, I realized why this all sounded so wrong.  I knew Dzhokhar had a major part in causing the tragedy in Boston.  I knew he would be punished in a method and severity to be determined by a court.  Somehow, I knew that was enough.  Somehow, I knew the jeers of society weren't necessary.

I thought back to last April, when I sat on the jury for a murder trial.

The crime took place between old friends, practically brothers.  The victim had started to poke fun at the defendant after the defendant's girlfriend had done the same.  The defendant had a medical condition, and the joking came at the expense of his condition.  He tried to get his friends to stop, but they wouldn't.  He walked away, but the jokes continued.  He told his friend to leave, but again poking fun at his condition, the victim asked "What are you gonna do?  Make me?"  The defendant picked up a kitchen knife in threat, and his friend was killed when he lunged to take the knife from the defendant.

For 4 days, I sat with 11 other jurors unable to talk about the case.  We heard statements about the incident, statements from both mothers, and the police involved.  We had to look at autopsy pictures and hear a statement from the pathologist who detailed his wounds.  We knew full well the impact of this man's actions.

But when it came to the fifth day, we agreed on something else: this man had lived for 6 years knowing that his oldest friend was killed by a knife that he held in his hand.

We couldn't call it murder, because we don't think he ever intended to cause harm, but maybe he did.  So, wWe assigned a verdict of manslaughter, and shortly after gave the man the minimum 5 year prison sentence.

We hesitated to make this decision, because we didn't want the victim's mother to feel justice wasn't served.  We hesitated, because society would clearly say that he deserved worse for ending a human life.  What got us past our hesitation was the thought of mercy.

Suddenly, in the midst of our discussion, we knew that we held a huge gift in our hands.  While we had the power to assign life in prison, we also held the power to show mercy.  We could look this man in the eye, all understanding what had come to pass, and we could give him a second chance.  We could give him less than he deserved.

Today, I see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sitting in the defendant's seat.  I see a boy of 19 who did something awful.  I see someone who couldn't have been in his right mind, whether brainwashed or mentally ill.  I see someone with so many years ahead of him that he could learn to love.  I see someone who needs a second chance.

We could join in with the rest of the country to shout "crucify!" to the  courts.  We could join in with jeers of our own, urging for the most severe punishment the law allows and more.  We could strive toward an eye-for-an-eye punishment.

Or we could choose to love our enemies.

"A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples." (John 13:34-35, NIV)
"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well." (Matthew 5:38-40, NIV)
 "You’re familiar with the old written law, 'Love your friend,' and its unwritten companion, 'Hate your enemy.' I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst." (Matthew 5:43, MSG)

 Always moving forward,